If you’re from continental Europe, this story will probably sound familiar.
A tourist comes up and tries to ask a question in your native language. Clearly, the extent of their knowledge is twelve words gleaned from an app, with absolutely no understanding of grammar or syntax. They compensate for ability with volume. Clearly, this conversation is doomed.
That is, until you piece together in your mind the remnants of Mrs. Thislebottom’s teachings and, with a confident smirk, reply, “Do you speak English?”
They sigh in relief. You explain the route to the nearest Starbucks and send them on their way with your head held high. Your polyglotism has saved the day. Hurray for English.
That is, as long as you’re talking to a tourist. As a migrant, the scenario looks a bit different. Let me share a true story that happened to me recently, after four and a half years living in Japan.
Crumbling under the weight of poor assumptions
Imagine this scenario: You’ve been living abroad for half a decade. Through tireless study and lots of trial and error, you’ve painstakingly managed to acquire a solid working knowledge of the local language. You find work at a local company. You use the language on a daily basis with friends, colleagues, perhaps even a significant other.
But sometimes, just occasionally, you’re at a company event, in line for some dinner, and the caterer starts looking at you funny. You can read in his gaze a mix of skepticism and apprehension. Your turn comes. In your best Japanese, you ask him for the chicken.
He pauses. You see him straining to summon a distant memory. Then, in barely comprehensible English, he unabashedly asks, “Can you use chopsticks?”
I’ve been in this situation several times now. How you feel about it probably says something about your personal history. People who haven’t lived abroad will probably think, “I don’t see the problem. He was being nice, just checking!” Whereas those who have been through similar experiences are cringing.
The problem is in the assumptions. Leaving aside that he didn’t think I could operate chopsticks, the process going through that caterer’s mind was something along the lines of, “This guy is white, most white people can’t speak Japanese, therefore what I remember from high school twenty years ago is probably my best bet for smooth communication.”
His thought process should have been, “We’re in 2020, many foreigners have integrated into Japanese society, I’m at a Japanese event for a Japanese company where everybody is speaking Japanese, let me just treat this person like everyone else.”
There is no consensus among foreigners about when it’s alright to switch to English. I’ve heard some people say, “Whoever speaks first sets the language. Just continue in that language.” Others believe that all conversations should be held in whatever the local language is. And then there are those who would be perfectly happy if everyone could just speak to them in English all the time, wherever they are in the world.
Here’s my take on the protocol for when to switch to English when addressing a foreigner.
Not all foreigners are language teachers
As in all aspects of life, context is key. Knowing which language is the most appropriate to use (and even the level at which to use it) is a critical step toward developing multicultural awareness.
The first thing to do is assess whether or not the situation is fit for learning. I sometimes hear other foreigners complain that they never have the opportunity to practice Japanese in business settings–but business settings aren’t meant for language practice! It’s selfish to treat an entire community as your own personal language classroom. To those who go around grunting in broken Japanese and getting frustrated when a reply comes in English: Go get a tutor.
The same logic applies the other way around. Not every foreigner is an English teacher, and not every conversation is an opportunity to brush up on your language skills. Just as when you meet a doctor at a social event, you don’t show them that weird skin discoloration and ask if it’s a melanoma.
If English is genuinely the most comfortable means of communication, perhaps you can switch, but be aware the message you’re sending is, “Your Japanese isn’t good enough for this conversation.” You will be judged.
If the opportunity is fit for learning and you know your interlocutor is alright acting as a language exchange partner, then by all means, go for it.
When in doubt, the polite thing to do is to stick with the language that best fits your surroundings. In Japan that will usually be Japanese, unless you’re at an event being held in a foreign language, a business meeting with non-Japanese speakers, or some other gathering where another language is clearly being used.
Sometimes it’s just plain rude
When someone switches to English for no reason, usually I’ll just sigh and go with it. There are however situations, especially in a professional context, where switching is just plain rude. A great example is a recent press conference, where a foreign-born reporter working for a Japanese newspaper asked the Japanese Foreign Minister a question in Japanese about coronavirus testing and re-entry.
The exchange was somewhat surreal. The minister first gave a long answer in Japanese. The reporter asked a follow-up question in Japanese. Out of nowhere, the minister then switched to English. She swiftly rebuked him.
“Are you making fun of me?” she said, still in Japanese. “If a question is asked to you in Japanese, please reply in Japanese.”
“I’m not making fun of you,” he replied, back to Japanese. He then repeated the non-apology twice more for good measure, after which he proceeded to do his job and answer the question. Once he was done, he somehow saw fit to ask, “Did you understand my Japanese?”
The entire press conference was in Japanese. The prior exchange with that reporter was entirely in Japanese. She clearly understands Japanese!
By replying in English and then belittling her linguistic abilities, he was seemingly trying to display some form of macho-style dominance. In other words, good old sexism, wrapped in a thick coating of cultural insensitivity.
Her reaction was telling. In a professional context especially, switching to English is not perceived as a favor to your foreign interlocutor. It’s a signal they shouldn’t try so hard in Japanese. It can even carry racist undertones, as some Japanese people are convinced their language is too complicated for non-Asians to handle.
It doesn’t matter how good your intentions are, or how much you want to show off your English ability. In a professional context, switching to English for the sole reason that you’re speaking to a foreigner is culturally insensitive. It’s being discriminatory toward a fellow member of society based not on their skill or competence, but solely on their appearance. In other words, it’s racial stereotyping.
This pattern of behavior is still pervasive in many parts of the world. Especially in countries like Japan, where there are far more tourists than there are Japanese-speaking immigrants.
I hope things will soon start to change. That overall cultural awareness will grow and these instances will be called out more frequently by Japanese people themselves (it’s reassuring that some are already doing so). That public figures as important as the Foreign Minister will learn from their gaffes and develop greater cultural sensitivity.
In the meantime, when a local caterer asks me in English if I can use chopsticks, I will continue to reply, “Yes. And I can use Japanese too.”